Vulpes Libris

A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.

God’s Mechanics: How scientists and engineers make sense of religion, by Brother Guy Consolmagno, SJ

If there’s one thing I hate about religion books, it’s that arrogant attitude of smug satisfaction that we get when we think we’ve produced the ultimate answers to all the deep questions that have bothered the greatest thinkers of the ages.  If the answers were so simple, those questions wouldn’t still be with us.

– Chapter 3, “Good Science, Bad Philosophy”, p.31

I like God’s Mechanics a great deal.  In fact, it has become one of my very favourite books.  This makes it extremely hard to review.  I am neither a scientist nor a theologian, so I am ill-placed to assess this book in the light of current debate or tell you how well it describes the techie mind.   I can’t hold it up to any measurable criteria, like I could with a biography or a history text.  I might as well be standing here with a big placard that says I THINK THIS BOOK IS AWESOME.  Well, I suppose it would be concise.

However, since this book is awesome and I would like to persuade you to read it and see if you like it too, I will try to be a little more expansive.  From the cover, it looks like it might be some grand treatise on the relationship between science and religion.  Don’t be fooled.  It is something far more approachable and, paradoxically, a lot more complicated: a personal reflection by a Jesuit astronomer (Consolmagno is on the staff of the Vatican Observatory) about how faith works for him and the techies around him.  It’s neither a homily nor a polemic; it reads rather like a series of short informal talks on a common theme.

Brother Guy Consolmagno writes in an easy conversational style, with a reassuring charm which makes it that much easier when he drops you into some gaping chasm of transcendental uncertainty and leaves you there.  (He does have a slight tendency to cheesy metaphor, but it does the job.)  This book is all about uncertainty.  Consolmagno has no illusions about the extent of what he or anyone can really claim to know about the universe; there is no question here of proving or disproving anything.  He talks frankly about his faith, his perceptions, biases and bugbears.  You will almost certainly disagree with him at some point, perhaps even strongly.  You might even disagree all of the time.  And that’s the great thing about this book: it doesn’t matter.  The author isn’t telling you how things are, he’s telling you how he’s inclined to see them and why he thinks that might be.  That can be interesting from any angle, and I dare say the interest actually increases the further away you stand from his starting point.  (If you are reading this and happen to be an American Catholic scientist in Holy Orders, the comment section is just below).

As with any book that deals in the personal, the transcendental and the slippery, the appeal of God’s Mechanics is highly subjective.  In other words, I have no idea if you will like it or not (although I urge you to give it a try).  I can only say that it worked for me in a way that more didactic approaches never do.  Consolmagno leads by example: his exploration of his beliefs and assumptions brought me to look at my own more clearly.  I originally chose to read this book out of intellectual curiosity.  That extra dimension – the invitation to discovery – was something I never anticipated.  It proved to be truly enriching.

Jossey-Bass, 256 pp., ISBN: 978-0787994662

Join us tomorrow for Part I of Kirsty’s interview with Brother Guy Consolmagno.

12 comments on “God’s Mechanics: How scientists and engineers make sense of religion, by Brother Guy Consolmagno, SJ

  1. Anne Brooke
    November 9, 2010

    Sounds great, thanks, Kirsty. I think the title was putting me off, but I feel inspired to read it now!


  2. john
    November 9, 2010

    Making sense of religion sounds like something for anthropologists or sociologists, but it is interesting how some scientists have faith when their religion has a history of science denial and even suppression. That said, it’s a great review and the interview should be of interest.

  3. Moira
    November 9, 2010

    As someone with a soft spot for cheesy metaphor I really like the sound of this one. And like John, I’m very much looking forward to the mega-interview tomorrow and Thursday …

  4. Pingback: God’s Mechanics « Kirsty Jane McCluskey

  5. Melrose
    November 9, 2010

    My feeling is that science itself is a kind of religion. In something like astronomy, where the whole subject matter is so awe-inspiring and there are questions that no-one can answer definitively, some things have to be taken on faith. William Blake talks of Newton’s science as the single vision of scientific materialism, but I don’t think that scientists working especially at either end of the spectrum – microscopic or telescopic especially – necessarily feel like that, where things seem to have no beginning or no end.

    Some books just get you like that – you think they’re great, and you keep them forever – but you can’t say quite why!

  6. Savanna
    November 9, 2010

    Wow, this immediately caught my interest and it sounds very intriguing, very different from any book on religion I’ve probably read before. This is definitely going on my ever growing books-to-read list and I look forward to reading the interview!

  7. Hilary
    November 9, 2010

    This sounds most interesting, Kirsty. I’ve known many people (including in my family) who have religious beliefs working in and/or studying science, technology and mathematics. I’ve therefore had little patience with a position on either side that calls the two things incompatible. O, how I love the opening quote, and how I’d like to strike through the word religion, replace it with science, and have it made into a pokerwork sign to go on Richard Dawkins’s desk.

    I think this is a book I must read, and I’m very much looking forward to the interview.

  8. Shelley
    November 9, 2010

    As not only a writer but also a parent. I was reminded by your lead quote of something I once heard someone say about parenting: if there were a right way to do it, a definitive answer, then there wouldn’t be hundreds of books written every year touting their answer to the question.

  9. kirstyjane
    November 10, 2010

    Thanks all for the lovely comments. I’m happy if I managed to communicate a little of why this book is so enjoyable (at least for me). I’m also baffled by the idea that faith and science are inherent opposites, but it seems to have become an entrenched one at least in current public debate… making a book like this even more welcome!

  10. Nemo
    November 10, 2010

    What differentiates this book from most of the doctrinal and controversial works and apologetics is not the conversational style and humour, but the focus on how Techies ‘make it work’ in real life.

    Corny humour from clergy is common in nearly every denomination.

  11. Pingback: An Interview with Brother Guy Consolmagno: Part II « Vulpes Libris

  12. chasing bawa
    November 11, 2010

    I attended a talk once about science and religion in which almost all the scientists there said their religious beliefs did not affect their careers as scientists and vice versa. To a non-religious person, it was a revelation as I always thought the two would be incompatible. So this sounds like a very interesting book to see how working scientists actually square their science and beliefs.

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